Designed by Michael Hurdzan with Dana Fry and constructed by Landscapes Unlimited, the Shelter Harbor course between Westerly and Charlestown was the first private layout to open in Washington County, Rhode Island for more than a hundred years when it was unveiled in 2005.
The clubhouse is set within a 400-acre property on one of the highest promontories in Rhode Island and it offers wonderful views over the 18-hole layout, the adjoining 9-hole par three course and the nearby waters of Block Island Sound.
Characterized by bearded bunkers, many of which were built by Coore & Crenshaw collaborator, Jeff Bradley, the course also features a number of small stone dykes that appear with regularity throughout the round.
“In a state where nearly every top course dates to before World War II, it is hardly surprising that an ambitious modern layout like Shelter Harbor would be constructed in a classic style,” wrote Daniel Wexler in The American Private Golf Club Guide, “its wooded fairways, rough-edged bunkering and occasional stone wall combining to give it a somewhat “lived in” look. This is also one of Hurdzan and Fry’s more strategic designs, with angled or centerline bunkers affecting many tee shots, and the majority of holes mandate at least a modicum of thought.”
A staff member spoke proudly about Shelter Harbor following my round, touting that Dana Fry considered it his second-best design, behind only Erin Hills. I don’t believe that Fry, as a clearly-biased participant in the creation of both courses, can be relied upon for a fair appraisal. Therefore I, an unprejudiced outsider, will volunteer that Fry is incorrect: Shelter Harbor is the better of the two layouts.
I don’t aim to peddle “hot takes,” and I believe other reviewers could make legitimate arguments why Erin Hills tends to rise to the top when discussing Hurdzan and Fry. The terrain itself is better, and it certainly holds a number of superb holes. But the routing occasionally tends toward “freeway school” (odd for such an expansive property) and the hazards upon approach struck me as repetitive. Hosting a U.S. Open, plus Golf Digest’s hyping (speaking of biased reviewers, can’t hurt to have the magazine’s architectural editor serve as consulting architect) has perhaps elevated that course unfairly.
But I’m wasting my time downplaying Erin Hills when my purpose is to celebrate Shelter Harbor. These clubs should be seen on a level playing field.
It helps that Harbor’s playing field is anything but level, a prime piece of property near the Rhode Island shore that offers an unusual level of elevation change compared to the Golden Age classics along the Narragansett. The club also benefits from significant scope, which allowed Fry to create fairways nearly as epic as those at Erin. As at that club, bogey routes exist for the humbler golfer. Most fairways have trees on both sides, however, like Kevin Na at the 2017 Open, you would deserve ridicule for finding them.
Playing courses such as this leads to a lengthy list of noteworthy holes, but occasionally the simple acknowledgment of architectural merit graduates to outright awe. Such was my thought as I made my way uphill to the green at No. 9, a par five that wound through a double dogleg to a final false front and a tiered green. I imagined Bethpage Black and what it could be, were it returned to a Tillinghast from its current Jones presentation. Tillie pioneered the double dogleg after all, and his true fairway widths offered options...either challenge the well-guarded corners and green for a birdie attempt, or travel around them on the way to a satisfying bogey. The hole is — to delve into superlatives — majestic, and I loved it.
I’m also subject to my own biases, of course: As a Midwesterner, the centuries-old stone walls that line the New England countryside cause me to salivate and yearn to visit the nearest Yankee Candle retailer. Fry deserves kudos for the strategic incorporation of said walls during at least No. 2; the green on this par four (400 yards from the member tees) features a high-left tier that flows down to a low-right. My preferred strategy is to leave an approach short-left of the green and let it ride down, but shaping this shot means starting your ball over a wall that perpediculates the fairway from the left, landing at a somewhat blind point and trusting the roll. (There’s also a wall right of the fairway that is more penal; it guards a Native American burial area and landing in it brings a curse to your family. I’ve read enough Stephen King to know.)
The variety throughout the first 14 holes — three stellar entries for both threes and fives, as well as par fours that aired long or drivable — was impressive, with testing shortgrass short areas throughout.
The course hit an unfortunate slowdown for holes nos. 15 - 17 that prevented it from gaining an extra half-ball by my estimation (doubly disappointing, considering how such holes fell along the final stretch). Nos. 16 and 17 suffer for the incorporation of a large man-made pond, which while necessary for irrigation purposes and perhaps to weaponize a less turbulent piece of the property, stuck out like sore knees (hiking and golfing is the crux of my vacations) compared to the rest of the property. No. 15 was less excusable...after three exciting par threes, I turned to my host and asked what the trick was. Just lackluster.
Erin Hills, in my opinion, shares a similar story...a few weak holes here and there taking from what is otherwise a worthwhile day out. The difference is that Erin needs no PR help from me. Choose which one you will, but I believe Shelter Harbor deserves at least equal attention for its, and Fry’s, efforts.
So much of the time spent at Shelter Harbor is thoroughly enhanced by the fact that the 400 acres of land is completely free of mind-numbing clutter that far too often painfully intrudes when playing so many courses today.
Shelter Harbor segregates the player within its boundaries and the immersion is something to behold. The land is accentuated by a skillful routing eschewing banal golf holes. Much of that is centered around the attractive but also fearsome nature of many of the bunkers encountered throughout the round. Jeff Bradley delivers again and again in bringing to life a bunker style that blends superbly with the natural contours of the property. Achieving that integration is central to maximizing the design ingredients Hurdzan and Fry envisioned. In sum -- the course meshes completely with its natural character.
What makes matters even more special is the utter detail in terms of course grooming. It's especially nice to step on tees uniformly cut with a firm tight foundation as soon as you plant one's feet. When done in the aforementioned manner you get at Shelter Harbor the feeling is nothing less than indescribable. Many may wonder why all the fuss on tees? In the countless course visits I have made it shocks me to see how many facilities fail what should be an elementary task. Suffice to say, if the tees are not prepared properly at any course -- it's highly likely the rest of the grooming will be low brow as well. Shelter Harbor sweats the small details.
The course is far more than a well-conditioned layout. Shelter Harbor starts with a muscle loosening par-5 and what makes the hole attractive is that even playing downhill the longer hitter must give pause to go for the green in two shots as a series of bunkers are keenly placed to ensure that only the highest level executed shot will be rewarded. At the opening hole you also see how green sites are created -- with closely mown edges at times so that approaches with a bit too much velocity will not quickly stop because of higher grass cuts around the edges of the putting surfaces.
Credit Hurdzan and Fry in adding a superb long par-3 early in the round at the 4th. Far too often the skillset of the long iron or hybrid or even fairway metal to a long par-3 holes is often avoided by many architects. Here you have to select the proper club and demonstrate a deft touch on the contoured target.
The short par-4 7th is another gem. Starting from an elevated tee you encounter a plethora of decisions to make. Do you attempt to go with driver and attack for the green? Be sure the execution matches up. A series of bunkers dots the landscape -- with one small but ever lethal one centered on the right spot to give fearless players a good bit of pause. Those who miss to the far right will need to account for a massive bunker that protects the green on that side. I'm not going to say the hole is at the level of the 10th at Bel-Air but it demonstrates how a change of pace hole can be so important to what players face and have to overcome.
The ending two holes on the outward side are both solid. The uphill par-4 8th is a hole type that far too many modern architects try to avoid. The pressure of the hole starts with the tee shot. The crucial importance in finding the fairway dictates one's success with the approach. The need for proper club selection is pivotal as the elevated target in tandem with the prevailing headwind faced puts the onus on players to step it up.
The par-5 9th concludes the front side in a fine manner. The hole turns left in the drive zone but a cluster of rigorous bunkers await any play that's less than Herculean. The green is tuck around a corner and his angled beautifully. There's a rear pin placement area that surrenders only to the finest of plays. Par-5 holes need not be ones where automatic birdies are for the taking. At the 9th you earn it.
The inward half features an array of differing holes. Some noteworthy -- others less so. In the latter category are the long par-4 10th, the par-5 12th, the par-4 13th and the par-3 15th.
What saves the day is the following: a quality short par-3 at the 11th -- the demanding two-shot par-4 at the 15th with its devilish internal contours at the green, the risk/reward par-5 16th and the final two holes. The par-3 17th is both beautiful looking and uber demanding. A menacing pond slides next to the green and the tendency is to steer clear of it. Going too far right only complicates matters with a par score being anything other than automatic.
The concluding hole seals the memories of Shelter Harbor with vivid imagery. The uphill par-4 is framed in the background by the elegant clubhouse. The green towers above the fairway and choosing the proper club for the approach is essential.
Although not tied to the actual course or the overall rating it's important to point out Shelter Harbor showcases a quality 9-hole par-3 course, a comprehensive practice facility and all the modern elements a clubhouse has to provide.
Shelter Harbor is not the finest Hurdzan / Fry course I've played. That honor for me goes to the Devil's Paintbrush outside of Toronto. Nonetheless, Shelter Harbor delivers on numerous fronts with the conditioning clearly adding to the design ingredients.
Is Shelter Harbor a Top 100 course in the USA? For some -- that answer may be "yes." For me that answer is no. Shelter Harbor clearly has its moments but the architecture is not consistently compelling and bulletproof to merit that lofty an honor.
That by no means diminishes what Shelter Harbor provides. No question, there will be those who weigh the totality of the non-course elements as part of their overall sense of the property. My view is simply relegated to the actual design from the moment you step on the 1st tee thru the holing of the last putt on the 18th.
The Ocean State of Rhode Island is the smallest in the USA but the golf side clearly casts a lasting memory with the likes of Shelter Harbor.
M. James Ward
Excellent review James. I love New England and have wanted to play Shelter Harbour since 'playing' it on my friends Trackman. Your review has whet my appetite. I was due to go to New England this Fall but cannot due to Covid 19. Next year hopefully I will be able to play it.
Shelter Harbor is a fabulous course. It's not the best in RI though in my mind....3rd or 4th. Newport, Misquamicutt and Wannamoisett are the best in my playbook. SH sits up on the hill and has a fantastic view and an equal practice facility. It's the full monty. The course is great conditioning and has a wide variety of hole designs. The finishing hole coming up the hill to the massive clubhouse is fantastic. The exposed rocks all over the property create a hazard unlike what you encounter often. The par 3's are a great group. The par 4's are the best attribute of the course. The 5's are very nice. Overall it's just a fabulous day to be at this club. No short cut was taken to create this fabulous playing field. Get that is ever given an invite.
Shelter Harbor by Dana Fry and Michael Hurzdan is a gem. I have heard the comment from many that once it receives more outside play that it will likely become a top 100 golf course by the major magazines. I think it falls slightly short of that but is easily within the top 200.
It is a golf course that reminds one of Old Sandwich (Coore & Crenshaw) or Boston Golf Club (Gil Hanse) in its topography and utilization of natural features. It produces a feeling of solitude given its massive location of 400 acres through a fair number of trees and several ponds.
It starts with a bang, a downhill long par five with a bunker that has to be navigated to find the best route into the green.
The fairways are fairly wide throughout, a common feature to current architects, with a lot of "eye candy" with the bunkers and rocks.
The first two holes are gentle, but the third is a long par four to a well defended green with bunkers right which is the line most players would take into the hole.
The fourth is famous for its biarritz like green. It is a long par four but I thought the green was overly done and mainly unfair. I have played better green complexes than on this long par 3.
The next three holes I found to be only average although scenic. Some like the seventh with its fairway bunker and well defended green but I found it to be a bit too much and that was after a routine par. I liked the green complex but I did not like the way into the hole.
The eighth and ninth are strong uphill holes, a par four and par five. The ninth has a green tucked on a ridge into a dell like setting. I thought it was the best hole on the front.
The tenth is a long downhill par four again with very wide fairways. I liked the view the most here and thought it was the second best hole on the golf course.
This is followed by some fairly straightforward holes, the eleventh-twelfth. They were extremely fun to play as a par three and par five.
The thirteenth is a short par four with another wide fairway, dogleg left followed by a long par four and a long par three. All of them have very good greens, rolling and undulating.
The sixteenth is a shorter par five with a pond down the left. I felt the hole was a bit too easy.
It is a nice finish with a par three over the water and a terrific green. It is a very beautiful hole. This is followed by the best hole on the golf course, a longer par four where you have to carry the wetlands to an uphill well defended and tilted green perched below the clubhouse.
Overall, Shelter Harbor is a wonderful golf experience due to the beauty of the golf course and the challenges it presents with the approach shots and on the greens. The fairways are perhaps a bit too wide at time but that is good for a game of "joy" but not necessarily always a challenge. I did not find there to be more than a couple of outstanding holes, and I thought some of the hole's greens were overly done. I enjoyed The Misquamicut Club more for the experience, but I think this is the best golf course in Rhode Island.
Among the many outstanding features at Shelter Harbor, two stand out: bunkers and rocks. While the number is not excessive, the bunker locations Mike Hurdzan and Dana Fry have found add interesting challenges. The second shot on the opening par 5 puts the player’s mind to work right away as (s)he decides how to avoid a gaping bunker. There’s another at the par 5 11th, but my favorite is the short par 4 7th. Here Hurdzan and Fray placed a pair in the middle of the fairway that are quite visible from the tee. But the best is yet to come as just over the rise and past that first pair is a third bunker—completely invisible from the tee. It’s as if the 12th at the Old Course had been transplanted to Rhode Island. The clever bunkering continues greenside as well.
Running game options abound (only 2 holes require the aerial variety) though there are still bunkers (notably at the 1st and 16th) that threaten the approach. In addition to being challenging, the bunkers are also beautiful—the work of Jeff Bradley, who built the bunkers at such Coore and Crenshaw courses as Friar’s Head, Bandon Trails and Cuscowilla.
Stone walls also abound, most constructed from the rocks pulled from the New England soil that drove so many farmers to the more fertile Midwest. While ubiquitous, the walls rarely come into play. In some cases, Hurdzan and Fry left some boulders on the course, the most prominent of which threatens the second shot on the par 5 9th.
The course is usually in great conditioning, with the greens running 11 on my stimpmeter even during a recent early May round. There are plenty of wetlands, but few forced carries—though at 13 and, to a lesser degree 18, you should pick your tee box carefully. Most tee shots are confronted by wide fairways, but there is usually a better side of the fairway to be on.
For its size, Rhode Island has as many fine courses as any state. Shelter Harbor is my Ocean State favorite and among my half dozen favorites in New England.